Ridha Behi: On getting the last words of a legend

The director Ridha Behi was the only person who managed to tempt Marlon Brando out of retirement. So what happened to the film? Geoffrey Macnab reports
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Ridha Behi is a quietly spoken, middle-aged Tunisian film-maker. His most recent feature, The Magic Box (2002), was inspired by his childhood as a movie lover, growing up in a Muslim country. His strict religious father deplored his passion for cinema, but the young Behi frequently played truant from school to sneak off to screenings of old Federico Fellini, Marcel Carné and Marlon Brando movies.

One of the centrepieces of the film was a depiction of the real-life riot provoked by a Hollywood film company that came to town in 1961 to shoot a new version of The Thief Of Bagdad with musclebound star Steve Reeves. The local Muslim population was so outraged that the movie had to be abandoned. In hindsight, the spat over Reeves seems like small beer by comparison with the problems that have dogged Behi's latest project.

The Magic Box screened on the festival circuit and then disappeared from sight. The next time Behi emerged in the public eye was at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004, when he announced that he was writing and directing Brando and Brando, about a young man from Tunisia obsessed by US culture in general and by Marlon Brando in particular.

What made the world's media pick up on the project was the startling revelation that Brando had agreed to appear in the movie - as himself.

The story of how Behi and Brando came together in the first place is fascinating but also a little dispiriting. A venture that began in a spirit of idealism soon became derailed by greed, illness and misunderstandings.

Behi had written a treatment about the misadventures of a young Tunisian in the US and was determined to get Brando to read it. His initial attempts to approach the legendary movie star got him nowhere. He met a lawyer who promised him an introduction to Brando, but at a price - $110,000. "It was a ridiculous amount of money and he [the lawyer] couldn't even guarantee that Brando would accept [to read the script]," recalls Ronaldo Mourao, an associate producer on the film.

The British publicist Phil Symes had worked with Behi on The Magic Box and agreed to help Behi in his bid to reach Brando. Symes' former business partner Warren Cowan had represented Elizabeth Taylor for many years. Through Cowan's connections, Behi managed to find a telephone number for the Hollywood producer Mike Medavoy. In late 2003, Behi sent Medavoy the treatment, only to be told that, unless there was an offer of $5m up front, there was no point in Medavoy even showing the script to Brando.

At that point, the trail seemed to run dry. However, in February 2004, out of the blue, Symes received a series of urgent personal phone calls from Brando, who was clearly eager to do the movie.

"One got the impression that, for whatever reason, Brando had adopted this as something to keep him busy, to occupy his mind," recalls Symes. Brando was already talking about casting: he was keen to approach Johnny Depp, Jack Nicholson and Sean Penn. Quickly, the project began to build momentum.

"He [Brando] said that he had tried to deliver messages to America many times on the plight of the Indians and what was happening in the Israeli-Palestine conflict and felt that he had never been listened to. His view was that with this film, finally, maybe, he could be listened to."

Behi was eventually summoned to meet the movie star at his home in Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles, in the spring of 2004. His account of his lengthy audience with the movie star can't help but rekindle memories of those grimly comic scenes at the end of Apocalypse Now when Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) finally comes face to face with the obese, bald, frog-eyed Kurtz (Brando) deep in the jungle. Brando's bitterness and sadness were palpable. "He cried and he said he had lost his life," Behi recalls.

During their time together, Brando lamented about his family problems and about the state of the world. He told Behi that if he could have his time again, he would be a scientist, not an actor. The FBI, he confided, was bugging him. The two men, the Hollywood legend and the diffident North African film-maker, struck up an unlikely friendship.

Behi was shocked at how frail Brando was. "I know now that he [Brando] knew he was going to die," he says today.

Behi spent several days with Brando, working on the script. At first, the latter agreed to allow the Tunisian director to tape-record their conversations. In sombre and melancholic mood, the actor mused about such subjects as the genocide in Rwanda and the tragedy of September 11. "He compared the silence in the Western world when nearly one million people died with what happened in New York, when 3,000 died and America started a war in Afghanistan and Iraq."

Brando, Behi suggests, realised that this was going to be his last screen role. Even so, he remained preoccupied with his fee. At first, he asked for $5m up front from Behi's British producer, Norma Heyman. The problem was that Brando wasn't considered bankable. He may have been one of the greatest movie stars in history, but he was old, erratic and overweight. Potential financiers were - Symes says - strangely resistant. "So many people felt that Brando wouldn't have the strength to make the film. There were many who cast doubts on whether he was really the worldwide box-office attraction he had once been. There was a lot of scepticism about the project."

Eventually, Brando lowered his demands, agreeing to take a substantially reduced $2m. When the money failed to come through immediately, Brando told Behi to turn the tape recorders off. However, he allowed the Tunisian to remain at his home and continued with informal discussions about the movie.

Behi implored his backers to stump up the money as soon as possible. "I said many times: 'Please [find the money] quickly.' I saw this man with oxygen tubes. I knew that he wanted to make the film. He said to me: 'We will finish the film in July because in July, I will go to my island.'" July 2004, of course, was the month in which Brando died.

In hindsight, the quibbling over Brando's fee seems perverse. Despite rumours that he died penniless, the actor left more than $20m in his will. Now, Behi has revived the project, albeit in a very different form. Citizen Brando starts with an American crew led by Christopher Walken coming to Tunisia to shoot a film about the lost city of Atlantis. While there, they spot a handsome young Tunisian who looks exactly like a young Brando. The Brando lookalike subsequently travels to the States but soon discovers that - at least for an Arab - it is not the promised land he had hoped to find.

The original plan was for the character to come face to face with the great American star. With Brando long since dead, that is an impossibility. Instead, while telling this man's story, Behi will also chronicle his own problems in making the movie.

The purpose of his film, Behi has stated, is to explore what he says is "the desperately unfair conflict between Western technological and materialistic power and those many human beings whose only weapons are their identity and their timeless values."

Behi plans to use his recordings of Brando in the movie as well as old footage of the actor. No, he admits, he hasn't yet received authorisation from Brando's estate, but if permission is not forthcoming, he will simply display the actor's words on screen.

The film, he explains, is about the corruption of an innocent: the young Tunisian encounters nothing but disappointment when he comes to the US. (Brando's idea was that he should end up imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay.)

On one level, Behi's own experiences mirror those of the central character in his movie. He, too, was awe-struck by Brando and relished the chance to work with him. In the event, there were so many delays and so much quibbling about money that the chance was missed.

"When Brando died, Ridha felt huge anger. He felt that the entire industry had let him and Brando down," says Symes. "He had a passion to meet Brando and to take the project forward. His own journey ended in huge disappointment and disillusionment."

Now, though, the Tunisian is determined to complete his movie. Not only has he had to overhaul his original script, but he has also had to find a new actor to play the Brando lookalike. (The first choice has lost his hair and put on so much weight since 2004 that he no longer resembles the actor in the slightest.)

At least Behi is now being taken seriously in Hollywood. He raised the finance on his own and recruited Walken to the cast. His aim is to have the film completed in time for next year's Cannes Film Festival. Then, at last, audiences might be able to hear Brando's final testament on screen.